Shortage of family doctors

All of us are getting older but those of us at the bottom of the actuarial tables face particular challenges. Most of us lead full lives but we worry about our increasing ailments. We also worry that small aches are preludes to something more serious.

Our individual problems are hardly unique. Over several decades, the nation’s population has aged. Last year, the first of the 76 million living baby boomers-those born between 1946 and 1964-reached the traditional retirement age of 67. We currently make up approximately one quarter of the nation’s population. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of old folks will reach almost 90 million by 2050.

This demographic trend brings with it a series of challenges because one of life’s rules is that health declines with old age. According to the Center for Disease control, “two of three older Americans have multiple chronic conditions.”

Our declining health has a major economic impact. The cost of providing care to those 65 and older is 3 to 5 time higher than those who are younger. By 2030, these costs will increase by 25 percent primarily due to the aging population. Medicare spending alone is expected to increase from $555 billion in 2011 to $903 billion in 2020.

The impact extends beyond dollars and cents. There is the human side as well. At some late point in our lives, most will also require support and social services. For many this means increasingly turning to our families, friends, and communities.

We also turn to our family doctors. They play an important role for us. They are the ones who best explain the new and sometimes bewildering medical issues we encounter. They are the ones who guide us on preventative and curative measures. They are the ones who let us know when our worries are misplaced. We tell them details of our lives not shared with anyone else, even our loved ones.

Every older person deserves a great family doctor. But family doctors are in short supply.

In most developed countries with good health systems, 50 percent of the doctors are family physicians. In our country it is 30 percent. We already have a shortage of about 9,000 primary care doctors. By 2025 it is anticipated that this will grow to 65,000.

Why the shortage? People are living longer. The population is growing. Demand is higher due to expanded health insurance. And fewer doctors are entering family medicine because of lower salaries and longer work hours.

We need to focus on policies that look after older people including a greater supply of good family doctors. It is in all of our best interest to do so. Just remember that young people will become old one day. We know of whence we speak because, in the words of Robert Frost, “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”

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Gene Budig, a McCook, Neb., native, is a past president of three major universities (Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas). Alan Heaps is a former vice president at the College Board in New York City.